Catholic Herald staff
Vocations, prayer and sacramental living were key talking points at the Diocese of Superior’s 54th annual Fall Conference, Friday, Oct. 28, at St. Joseph, Rice Lake.
“Encounter,” this year’s theme, lent a retreat-like feel to the gathering of diocesan educators, which included music by homegrown contemporary Catholic artist Aly Aleigha, adoration and a keynote speech by NET Ministries program director David Rinaldi.
About 400 people attended the event, which opened with Mass celebrated by Bishop James P. Powers.
In his homily, the bishop spoke of prayer as a personal encounter with God and urged educators to instill in students the importance of prayer.
He also introduced a new strategy for keeping young Catholics in the church and increasing vocations to the religious and married life – create “a culture of sacramental living” in the diocese.
Sacraments are encounters with God, the bishop explained, and the difference between Catholics and those of other faiths is, “We are sacramental people.”
Young people are losing touch with their faith, “mainly because they’re being lured away by the bright lights of the world,” he said. When many young people today do have an encounter with the Lord, it is adversarial, because the relationship has not been nourished, he added.
“A sacramental culture is truly accepting our baptism,” the bishop said. “We need to begin claiming that sacramental life God gives us.”
God calls everyone to live permanent, committed lives, he continued, not to adhere to the throwaway culture, the attitude that tells us when we get tired of something or someone, we can simply throw them away.
To teach children about living the sacramental life, the bishop plans to send lessons to educators to be taught around vocations week in February.
“I beg you to be open to these additional or substitute lessons when they come,” he said. “If it doesn’t complement your materials, you may need to look at your program.”
“If we don’t know Jesus, how can we recognize him?” Bishop Powers said. “If we don’t encounter him, how can he be that capstone in our lives?”
‘Business partners with Jesus’
A former Air Force captain who flew refueling planes, David Rinaldi has been with NET Ministries for more than 20 years.
“You and I know we’re not working for the church for the money,” he joked. “We come to see ourselves as business partners with Jesus, and we can forget the importance of the encounter.”
He recounted the Bible story of the bleeding woman who touched Jesus’ garment.
After the woman was healed, Jesus asked who in the crowd had touched him, as many were bumping into him.
“I think it’s critical that we understand why he embarrassed her like that,” Rinaldi said.
Leviticus details hundreds of cultural laws from the day, and one of them dealt with menstruation, during which women were considered physically and spiritually unclean.
The woman in the crowd had a female problem lasting 12 years, which meant she had long been a pariah. By calling her out and calling her daughter, Jesus cured the condition and the persecution in a public way.
Bumping into Jesus isn’t unusual, he observed.
“As people who work in Catholic churches and Catholic schools … we bump into Jesus a lot. There’s a lot of people in the crowd that day who bumped into Jesus,” Rinaldi said.
Only one person – the bleeding woman – reached out to him and truly encountered him.
Rinaldi also reminded listeners of the power of God’s love for his children.
He noted that God loves people not because of their jobs, but because they are daughters and sons whose value comes from who they are, not what they do.
A ministry of relationship
In a presentation on vocations, Fr. Patrick McConnell, who serves parishes in Phelps, Eagle River and Land O’ Lakes, spoke on what led him to the priesthood.
He counts his relationship with one woman, Margie, as a major influence. She was a convert, the only person practicing Catholicism in her family, and not a theologian – “just a simple, beautiful individual.”
“She just loved me, and she loved Jesus, period,” he added.
Fr. McConnell considers his parents his primary vocations directors, but he believes Catholics are called to support and build relationships with those outside their families.
“I’m not up here because I’m going to teach you how to be a salesman for vocations,” he said.
Instead, Fr. McConnell noted that investing in children’s lives, letting them into “your beautiful mess” and showing up for their sporting events and activities is the best way to build a lasting, trusting relationship.
“There is no question in my mind that God wants you to draw people to him,” he said. “Brothers and sisters, it’s so profound for me to think about the fact of who you could introduce Jesus to, but we have to identify the barriers in our hearts that are keeping us from being vulnerable.”
Before we can invite others, “we must come and follow him,” Fr. McConnell said.
This is a difficult time, the priest added. Safe environment training protects children, but a restrictive environment can make it difficult for adults to befriend them – it’s easier to keep one’s distance.
“Our kids are in a really tough spot,” he said. “Working with young people can be frustrating.”
But, he added, finding ways to follow the rules while giving kids the support they need is key.
“The only way we can bring children to Christ is if we open our hearts to them,” he continued, “so we have to break down any barriers that would keep them from seeing the Christ in us.”
Fr. McConnell listed four steps for building a ministry of relationship: be a Christ-bearer, invite others, invest in their lives, and then disciple them.
When Fr. McConnell was in college, he had a rough week – one of his friends went missing and was later found dead; his college girlfriend dumped him, and his father was having heart problems.
His friendship with a priest helped him through it.
“He was attentive to me when I needed Christ,” Fr. McConnell said. “Where is God calling you to grow in his relationship with him?”
Sacrifice was another theme of Fr. McConnell’s talk. Everyone is so busy these days, but building relationships requires time.
“One of the things that’s very clear to me, if you’re going to have to be effective ministers … you’re going to have to sacrifice to Jesus,” he said. “You’re going to have to give up things.
“This will be a challenge, to do real relationship ministry,” he continued, “not just bearing the joys of Christ, bearing the sufferings of Christ.”
Catholics sometimes divide piety from ministry, preferring one over the other, but Fr. McConnell believes both are equally necessary.
“We shouldn’t be dividing a radical gift of self in ministry from a radical gift of self in prayer,” he added.